You’re rummaging in the attic and you come upon a dusty old packet of garden balsam seeds. An heirloom!
This heirloom’s probably more valuable for the picture on the packet than for the seeds, which probably have lost their vitality. You could, though, get your hands on heirloom plants that would grow.
Heirloom plants have been handed down through generations as saved seeds or pieces of stems or roots. Their muted colors are often counterbalanced by bold fragrances and flavors. Modern sweet peas are almost scentless compared with the honey-sweet sprays of Black Knight sweet peas, introduced in 1898.
Choose from among thousands of heirloom apple varieties – and flavors. Modern varieties of fruits and vegetables generally have been bred for mild flavors that appeal a little to everyone but not strongly to anyone.
VARIATIONS IN PLANTS
With a more casual growth habit than modern hybrids, heirlooms won’t give the ordered look of a brigade of soldiers when planted en masse.
Plant-to-plant variations of heirloom flowers may be subtle, as in the almost uniform blue flowers from a seed packet of Blue Boy bachelor’s buttons – a variety grown by Thomas Jefferson.
Or variations may be more dramatic, as in the occasional orange flower popping up among the reds from a packet of Gift zinnias.
Most plants aren’t heirlooms and will never become one.
Plant Snowball Hybrid marigolds, let a few flowers mature seeds, then plant those seeds, and what do you get? Not Snowball Hybrid marigolds.
Hybrid seeds are made by bringing together pollen and egg cells from two specially chosen parents. Unless you grow those parents and provide for pollination, you can’t perpetuate hybrids.
And even if not hybrids, many of today’s plants are patented. As such, it’s illegal to propagate and distribute them.
Still, heirlooms are available. Seed Savers Exchange and the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants are among mail-order specialists in heirloom flowers and vegetables.
Trees of Antiquity, Greenmantle Nursery and Cummins Nursery are among nurseries offering old-time fruit varieties.
So plant some heirlooms and bring a bit of the past into your garden. Pass cuttings of your favorite old fruits, trees, shrubs, and perennials to your neighbors and your children.
You can never tell when they might no longer be available commercially.